Jittery Newcastle put red rivals on alert

Trevor Haylett looks forward to this weekend's crucial Premiership matches
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The Independent Online
Taking football's scenic route from Wembley and the Portuguese via Anfield to marvel at the Dutch, it was possible to discover light and warmth in a dark and cold December week. The future may or may not be orange, but it certainly has a golden hue as far as next summer's European Championships are concerned.

For the English professional no such fast-forward fantasy is permitted just yet. The long haul through winter's harsh landscape has only just begun. Glamour has given way to graft and grit as those with designs on the Premiership pick up their spades and begin digging in.

Last season Newcastle United's claims foundered at this same pre-festive juncture and the events of a week ago brought new ammunition for those who argue that Kevin Keegan's talented collection as a slump waiting to happen.

While the Stamford Bridge defeat may only be significant in accentuating the positive - in recent seasons it has sometimes been a prerequisite for would-be champions to give second best to Chelsea - Geordie hearts and minds will be put at ease if tonight's League table continues to show them remaining unchecked at St James' Park.

It is a fair assumption that Keegan would not have chosen a visit from Everton to follow their West London banana skin. Joe Royle's ultra competitors dismissed them from last season's FA Cup although a Les Ferdinand-inspired Newcastle took some revenge with a Goodison victory in October.

If the future, as far as domestic issues are concerned, is not to be black-and-white, then logic would suggest it will once more be red, the Manchester United shade rather than that of tomorrow's opponents, Liverpool.

Having staged Netherlands' clinical destruction of the Republic of Ireland, the Anfield men will hope their own faith in clever passing and movement will gain its rightful reward after a less than impressive run. while United look to improve on two successive draws.

The corresponding fixture included the successful return of Eric Cantona after his enforced summer hibernation. In what is sure to be an atmosphere in contrast to the sportsmanship displayed on Wednesday, the Frenchman will need to maintain the discipline that so far has distinguished his post-ban appearances.

Cantona is the nearest English football can place alongside the sophistication of the Dutch and the Portuguese who, 24 hours earlier, demonstrated to a Wembley audience that they, too, have an appreciation of football's finer arts. Dennis Bergkamp is another, but the injury which forced him to leave the Anfield party has cost Arsenal his services - at home to Chelsea - for the third Saturday in a row.

Ron Atkinson returns to Villa Park less than thrilled by the difference of 16 places between his present and past employers. But at least there was last week's 5-0 victory over the champions to remind Coventry what they are capable of.

The Highfield Road humiliation persuaded Blackburn Rovers to spend again with the pounds 2.8m acquisition of Chris Coleman. The former Crystal Palace defender will make his debut at home to Middlesbrough should Colin Hendry fail to show his recovery from cracked ribs. Rovers' attack is also riddled with injuries, which means Alan Shearer could have the former Aston Villa player Graham Fenton as a new strike partner.

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